The Thai-Burma Railway and Hellfire Pass

Australian Prisoners of War on the Thai-Burma Railway 1942-1945

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Special Features

  • Thai–Burma railway

    Feature: the Thai–Burma railway

    Between October 1942 and 16 October 1943, some 200,000 Asian laborers and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war built the 415-kilometre Thai–Burma railway to supply the Japanese forces in Burma, bypassing sea routes made vulnerable when Japanese naval strength was reduced in the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway in 1942.
    More about the Thai–Burma railway

  • Building Hellfire Pass

    Feature: Hellfire Pass

    Known to prisoners of war as ‘Hellfire Pass’, the dramatic Konyu Cutting is 75 metres long and 17.5 metres deep. The excavation was done largely by hand, by Allied prisoners of war in mid-1943. During the ‘Speedo’ period between April and August 1943 workers were forced to work up to twelve or eighteen hours a day, drilling hard rock, removing the rubble in baskets and sacks, and surviving on starvation rations.
    Find out more about the construction

  • Conquest of the Asia–Pacific

    Feature: the Japanese thrust

    The Japanese advance in the Asia-Pacific in late 1941 and early 1942 was one of the most dramatic periods of conquest in modern military history. Find out how and why so many Allied prisoners were available to the Japanese to use as labour on such a huge project as the Thai–Burma railway.
    More about the Japanese advance

  • Bridge on the River Kwai

    Feature: Kwai River Bridge

    ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ is the best-known location on what remains of the Thai–Burma railway, owing to David Lean’s 1957 movie, starring Alex Guinness and William Holden. But the plot was fictional and although there were 688 bridges on the railway none in fact crossed the Kwae Noi during World War II.
    Find out more about the movie

  • Changi

    Feature: Changi

    ‘Changi’ has become a byword for captivity under the Japanese but it was not the worst experience. There were two ‘Changis’– Selerang barracks, a large base camp through which many POWs passed and to which survivors of the Thai–Burma railway returned emaciated and exhausted in late 1943; and the crowded Changi prison to which Allied POWs were moved in 1944.
    More about Changi gaol

  • The Japanese

    Feature: the Japanese and Korean story

    Some 12 000 Japanese and 800 Korean soldiers worked on the Thai–Burma railway as engineers or guards. Since their military code made them view prisoners of war as unworthy of respect, they failed to provide adequate food and medicine or to relax the pace of construction along the railway. Many thousands of Allied prisoners and Asian workers died as a result.
    More about the Japanese

  • Surviving

    Feature: surviving the camps

    Illness and death were ever-present on the Thai–Burma railway. Strong leadership, however, could save lives through isolating the infected, sterilising eating utensils, and allocating food to the sick. Medical personnel also showed a remarkable capacity to improvise in the harsh jungle conditions.
    More about survival

  • ‘Weary’ Dunlop

    Feature: ‘Weary’ Dunlop

    Lieutenant-Colonel E.E. ‘Weary’ Dunlop has become an iconic figure of the Thai–Burma railway, renowned for his untiring efforts to care for the sick, his physical and moral courage and his leadership. In the 1980s Dunlop was one of a group of ex-POWs who helped reclaim Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting) from the jungle.
    Read ‘Weary’ Dunlop’s story

  • War crimes

    Feature: war crimes trials

    After World War II Australia conducted nearly 300 military trials of Japanese for war crimes, including maltreatment of prisoners of war and the execution of Allied air men. Trials were conducted at Morotai, Wewak, Labuan, Rabaul, Darwin, Singapore, Hong Kong and Manus Island. Of 924 Japanese servicemen accused of war crimes, 644 were convicted by Australian military courts and 148 sentenced to death.
    More about war crimes trials

The Building of Hellfire Pass

The Thai–Burma railway

It seems to run without much regard to the landscape as though someone had drawn a line on a map!

[E.E. Dunlop, The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop, Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1989, 212.]

Railway line extends through a deep, narrow vertical channel cut into a hill
Show caption

The Thai–Burma railway was built in 1942–43 to supply the Japanese forces in Burma, bypassing the sea routes that were made vulnerable when Japanese naval strength was reduced in the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway in May and June 1942.

Once the railway was completed the Japanese planned to attack the British in India, and in particular the road and airfields used by the Allies to supply China over the Himalayan Mountains.

Begun in October 1942 and completed on 16 October 1943, the railway stretched 415 kilometres between Nong Pladuk in Thailand and Thanbyuzayat in Burma (now Myanmar).

A rail connection between Thailand and Burma had been proposed decades before World War II. In the 1880s the British had surveyed a possible route but abandoned the project because of the challenges posed by the thick jungle, endemic diseases and lack of adequate roads.

Long line of men carry large wooden beams under Japanese guard

Prisoners of war carrying railway sleepers in Burma, around forty kilometres south of Thanbyuzayat sometime in 1943. [AWM P00406.026] ... Enlarge image of POWs

The Japanese also carried out a survey in the 1920s and, after completing a further survey in early 1942, decided in June to proceed, using the large workforce of Allied POWs now at their disposal. At this time Japanese engineers were assisted by small numbers of prisoners marking and roughly clearing the route of the railway.

Aiming to finish the railway as quickly as possible the Japanese decided to use a massive workforce of prisoners and Asian labourers or rōmusha. The railway was to be constructed by units working along its entire length rather than just from each end.

The terrain the railway crossed made its construction very difficult. However, its route was not entirely the dense and inhospitable jungle of popular imagination. At either end, in Thailand and Burma, the rail track travelled through gentle landscape before entering the rugged and mountainous jungle on the border between the two countries.

When the track reached Wampo, about 112 kilometres from the Thai terminus, it started to meet jagged limestone hills, interspersed with streams and gullies. During the monsoon season, the land became waterlogged and unstable. This posed problems for construction as well as for transport and supply.

Wampo viaduct

The Wampo viaduct, constructed early 1943, consists of a series of trestle bridges following the curve of a sheer limestone cliff which falls into the Kwae Noi below. The viaduct is still used today and maintained by the State Railway of Thailand. It has, however been extensively repaired and the overhang appears to be unstable. [Photo: Kim McKenzie] ... Enlarge photograph of Wampo viaduct

As far as possible the railway track proceeded at a gentle gradient, as steam trains could only climb a slight incline. Where the railway met unavoidable hills, cuttings were dug to allow the line to proceed. Often the line emerged from a deep cutting onto a series of embankments, and bridges. In all, 688 bridges were built along the railway. In addition, over sixty stations were built to allow trains to pass one another, as well as refuelling and watering points.

More than 60 000 Allied prisoners of war were employed in the construction of the Thai–Burma railway, including British Empire troops, Dutch and colonial troops from the Netherlands East Indies and a smaller number of US troops. About 13 000 of the prisoners were Australian.

In addition, the Japanese enticed or coerced about 200 000 Asians labourers (rōmusha) to work on the railway. These included Burmese, Javanese, Malays, Tamils and Chinese.

Painting by Harold Abbott

On the Thailand Railway, 1 by Harold Abbott, 1946. An official war artist, Abbott was never taken prisoner of war but his painting graphically depicts three emaciated, naked prisoners bent over carrying a large log across a timber bridge platform over a river. This artwork forms part of a ‘triptych of suffering’ by Abbott, covering the fall of Singapore and prisoner experiences of the railway. [AWM ART22930] ... Enlarge painting

Over 12 000 Allied prisoners died during the construction of the railway, including more than 2700 Australians. Around 1000 Japanese died. It is difficult to determine precisely how many rōmusha died, as record keeping was poor. The number is estimated to be between 75 000 and 100 000.

Despite being repeatedly bombed by the Allies, the Thai–Burma railway did operate as a fully functioning railway after its completion. Between November 1943 and March 1944 over 50 000 tonnes of food and ammunition were carried to Burma as well as two complete divisions of troops for the Japanese offensive into India. This attack, one of their last, was defeated by British and Indian forces.

As the railway was used to support the Japanese in Burma until the end of the war, prisoners of war and rōmusha continued to work on maintenance and repair tasks after the railway construction was completed.